Austin faces less than expected demand for its isolation hotel

Investigations

AUSTIN (KXAN) – The City of Austin says the hotel it has been using to isolate people during the pandemic has proven larger than needed.

Since March 22, Austin-Travis County has been leasing out a hotel in central Austin as a place where people who have COVID-19 (or think there’s a chance they may have it) to isolate themselves from others for two weeks. For example, it’s an option for people who live with high-risk family members.

But last week Austin City Council authorized the city to move into a different hotel with 84 guest rooms. Documents from staff say the cost to rent the building would be $910,560 over a total possible five months.

The cost is lower compared to what the city has been paying to stay at the more than 200-room isolation hotel it started leasing in March. Austin had paid more than $4 million in costs from March to September, and hadn’t come close to using the building’s full capacity.

“We are moving to this hotel, with a smaller capacity, because the larger capacity at the current isolation has been larger than we have needed, even during our summer peak,” a spokesperson said.

Housing the homeless

The isolation hotel is often confused with five other hotels the city began occupying this year to shelter those vulnerable from the virus, namely people experiencing homelessness.

Like the isolation hotel, Austin is using CARES Act federal stimulus money to rent most of these hotels. The city was phasing in a hotel strategy to get people off the street prior to the pandemic, but the extra money has helped expedite the plan.

“I think what we’ve learned from the pandemic is that we have to re-look at how we’re providing resources on housing services to those that are homeless,” said Greg McCormack, who helps coordinate housing for nearly 300 people staying at the five hotels.

McCormack said Monday that 65 people have been transferred out of the hotels into affordable housing.

“Our goal is to provide and attach housing resources to every individual that is in a prolodge,” he said.

As of Sept. 3, Austin had spent nearly $10 million to occupy the five hotels, according to council documents. When we asked for updated numbers, a city spokesperson asked us to file a public information request.

McCormack tells us while this model costs more money up front, it ends up paying for itself later. A previous study by the Ending Community Homelessness Coalition found people living on the streets were taxing EMS and law enforcement resources.

“Individuals are using so many resources when they’re on the streets: medically, in the criminal justice system,” he told us.

The city is still working to determine its post-pandemic plan for the five hotels. Austin has purchased two of the five. McCormack said he expects the city to stop leasing three of them following the pandemic.

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